Tips for blended families on reducing seasonal stepfamily stress

Like most families, the McConville family of Riva experiences their fair share of stress during the holidays, but navigating the season as a blended family can bring its own set of difficulties.

Blended Ford Fam WThe Ford family of Crofton — Stephanie and Steve and their blended family including Addie, 13, Justin, 14, Blake, 21 (and his girlfriend) and JT, 17 — have figured out how to make holidays work. Mom Mindy and husband Dana celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with their kids, Brody, 8, and Brielle, 6, and with daughter Emily, 18 — Mindy’s daughter from a previous relationship. Emily also celebrates with her dad, Ken Foley, his wife, Jackie, their daughter, and Jackie’s son from a previous relationship.

Celebrating holidays with stepsiblings, half siblings and stepparents can be tricky, but the McConvilles and Foleys have found a way to make it work.

“Our family has worked hard to find a solution when it comes to holidays by alternating major holidays and splitting Christmas,” Mindy says.

This is familiar territory or many blended families — defined by the Census Bureau as households with a stepparent, a stepsibling or half sibling. According to a December 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of all children in America are living in blended situations. This family dynamic can be difficult on any given day, but the holidays add a whole new dimension of stress.

“It comes down to time. Every parent wants their time with the child, and if they don’t get what they want, the kids are the ones to hear about it,” says blended family expert Don Gordon, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Center for Divorce Education in Athens, Ohio.

In the early years after Mindy McConville and Ken Foley split, holidays were occasionally a source of tension.

“I married my husband, Dana, when Emily was 5. Ken (Emily’s dad) and I went through a transition period where we argued over everything from holidays to homework,” Mindy says.

Foley and McConville got lucky. Early on in their blended story, their attorneys suggested that instead of going to court, they hire a mediator to help work out the details.

“Getting help from a professional was the best decision we could have made,” Mindy says. “It outlined the holidays along with everything else and it saved us a lot of arguing. From that point forward, everything was clear. ... We even took Emily trick-or-treating together when she was young.”

Communicate

Blended McConville Foley Fam WThe McConville and Foley families work closely together to support their daughter, Emily, in everything from holidays to taking her to college together. Experts agree that communication is the key to avoiding conflict during the holidays for blended families — whether through a mediator or written agreement.

“Family members need to make their plans known well in advance so that everyone can move forward with good intentions,” says Rebecca McKee, a clinical psychotherapist and executive director of Anne Arundel Counseling, a private counseling organization with offices in Anne Arundel County and the Eastern Shore.

“There were times as Emily got older when she would express a different opinion about the holiday plans that Ken and I had agreed upon,” Mindy says. “We had to sit down and figure out what would work for both of our families — and, most importantly, what would make Emily happy.”

This clear communication and mutual respect have allowed Mindy and Ken to celebrate years of happy moments with their daughter, and they have welcomed their respective spouses and children into the fold.

“I am lucky that Emily has such a loving stepmother who values their time together,” Mindy says. “She is always doing kind things for my daughter during the holidays and throughout the year — she just keeps giving.”

That doesn't mean it's always easy.

“The holidays when she is not with me are very, very hard,” Mindy admits. “But I have to remember that she is still celebrating with people that love her, and I have to embrace that.”

Not all families are able to reach amicable agreements as readily as the McConville and Foley families. Risa Garon, a therapist and executive director of the National Family Resiliency Center, says that when one parent is unwilling to compromise or mediate, she advises parents to ask, “What is best for the child?”

“It can be hard for the compromising parent to take the high road, but it's important not to involve the child in the conflict,” she says.

Garon says that it's also important for children to learn to use their voices as they get older, so they feel comfortable talking to either parent about their feelings.

"They can talk about the importance of having both parents in their lives, and it empowers them to have their own voice in the matter," she says.

Create new traditions

While sharing holidays as a blended family can present its fair share of challenges, it also offers a unique opportunity to bond and establish new traditions, Gordon says.

Like the McConville and Foley families, the Ford family of Crofton has found a holiday solution that works for everyone in their blended family.

“We do the ‘Ford Family Thanksgiving’ the weekend before the actual holiday,” says mom Stephanie Ford.

Stephanie and her husband, Steve, have recently blended their families, including her son Justin, 14, and Steve’s children, Blake, 21, JT, 17, and Addie, 13.

By celebrating early, the whole family can be together along with grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“We can take our time and no one is rushed to be in a different place,” Stephanie explains. “Would we love to have all the kids on the actual day? Sure, but kids are under enough stress, and we want to do whatever we can to make it easier on them.”

The Fords are also creating new holiday traditions together. Stephanie has started shopping for a charity with each of the kids during the holiday season, and on Christmas Day, they all spend time together playing board games after dinner.

“It’s a lot of fun and we are making new memories,” Stephanie says.

Click next below for tips on how to make a blended holiday work.


How to make a blended family holiday work

blended fam 2 WThough it is difficult, there are ways to make holidays as a blended family the perfect blend of family and fun. Below are some words of advice from Don Gordon, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Center for Divorce Education; Rebecca McKee, a clinical psychotherapist and executive director of Anne Arundel Counseling; and families who have been through it.

Put the kids first. “Holidays are for kids and they should be center stage,” Gordon says. Take the time to ask your children how they feel about your holiday plans. Sometimes a simple word from a child will solve all of your dilemmas.

Keep it easy. Holiday celebrations that require traveling great distances and splitting time in several places during one day can put a strain on kids. “I always tell parents not to travel during their first few holidays as a blended family,” Gordon says. “It’s a lot for kids to handle when they are already dealing with a new situation.”

Respect traditions. Although your family may have one way of doing things, keep in mind that every family has its own traditions that are just as meaningful as yours. Try and find a way to compromise and include stepparents and stepsiblings into traditions.

Do something fun. The holiday season can be an opportunity for stepsiblings to bond through an activity like making a gingerbread house or visiting a tree farm. “Get creative and think outside the box,” McKee says. “Find opportunities to create memories and don’t focus on the greeting-card ideal of the holiday.”

Plan ahead. Agree on holidays far in advance, even down to where and what time things will happen. If there are disagreements between families about time with the kids, consider hiring a mediator to iron out details months in advance.

Resources for blended families

Center for Divorce Education
divorce-education.com
A national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families deal with divorce and separation issues.

Military One Source
militaryonesource.mil
Free counseling services provided by the Department of Defense for members of the military and their families.

National Family Resiliency Center
nfrchelp.org
Nonprofit providing counseling and education for families navigating divorce and family issues.

National Stepfamily Resource Center
stepfamilies.info
Education and resource organization dedicated to serving stepfamilies.

The Pro Bono Counseling Project
probonocounseling.org
Nonprofit that provides free counseling for couples and families throughout Maryland.

By Katie Riley